Are Humans Growing Smartphone 'Skull Spikes'? Study That Made the Claim Under Fire.

Man on cellphone
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Editor's Note: On Sept. 18, the authors of this “skull spikes” research published corrections to their study in the journal Scientific Reports. Read more about them at the journal's website.

The journal that published the so-called "skull spike" study is now taking a second look at the research that went into it.

The two authors of the 2018 study proposed the weird "skull spikes" present on the base of some people's skulls might be related to the odd angles at which these people bent their necks to look at smart devices, such as iPhones.

But questions about parts of the study have prompted the journal, Scientific Reports, which is published by Nature Research, to reexamine the study's techniques and conclusions. [The Real Fake News: Top Scientific Retractions of 2018]

"When any concerns are raised with Scientific Reports about papers we have published, we investigate them carefully following established procedures," a spokesperson for Scientific Reports told Live Science in an email. "We are looking into issues regarding this paper and we will take action where appropriate."

In the study — which included 1,200 people ages 18 to 86 — the researchers reported that boney spikes at the base of the skull were more prevalent in younger people, especially males in the 18-to- 30-age bracket, than in older people. These spikes are known as enlarged external occipital protuberance, or EEOPs.

However, internet commenters have raised a number of potential problems with the study. (The research did not find a direct cause-and-effect relationship between these spikes and smart-device use, but unfortunately, some media outlets said that it had. Some coverage even called them "horns.")

Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer for PBS NewsHour, asked experts and even people on Twitter to help him spot problems with the study. Here are some issues they described:

  • The researchers did not measure smart-device usage, so it's impossible to know how much time participants spent hunched over glowing screens.
  • The study doesn't apply to the general population, as it wasn't a random sample of people, but rather people who had asked chiropractors to address mild problems.
  • The Scientific Reports study states that "the authors declare no competing interests," but this past week Quartz reported that study first author David Shahar, a health scientist at the University of The Sunshine Coast, Australia, sells posture pillows online.
  • The study says that males are more likely than women to have these skull spikes, but their actual data suggests otherwise.
  • There are flaws in the analysis the researchers used to suggest that millennials tended to have more skull spikes than the elderly.

Live Science will continue to follow this story, so stay tuned.

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.